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Mitsuko Trust’s Shyamalee Roy fights for child rights and empowerment of India’s underprivileged children

Saumitra Chatterjee
22nd Mar 2016
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There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.

– Graham Greene

The quiet and unassuming Shyamalee Roy is Director of the Mitsuko Trust, based in Panjim, Goa. Mitsuko, which means ‘Child of Light’ in Japanese, is a one of a kind organisation in India. It fights for the rights of children and their empowerment: in fact, their right to participate in decision making in society. The task of guiding the children lies with us elders, and Shyamalee is a torchbearer who shows them the way.

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The beginning

In 1995, Mitsuko, a social worker from Japan, and her husband, Daniel (a Swiss national), came to work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in New Delhi. Shyamalee was at that time already working for the ICRC. Shyamalee and Mitsuko struck up a close friendship. In Shyamalee’s words, “We often spoke about the state of the children who came to beg late at night on the AIMS crossing in New Delhi. The children were always there whether the weather was cold or hot, while we sat in the comfort of an air-conditioned car. Mitsuko was appalled at their condition and wanted to do something to improve their lives.”

In a cruel twist of fate Mitsuko passed away to cancer in 2007, and she never got to do anything for the children. That’s when Daniel, Mitsuko’s husband, asked Shyamalee whether she would be willing to take up the cause, in Mitsuko’s memory. That’s how the Mitsuko Trust was born. It started its operations in Goa in 2009 because Shyamalee was living there at that time.

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Shyamalee’s Background

Shyamalee did not merely choose to do social work; rather social work was writ in her destiny! Take a look at her family background: her great grandmother, Kamini Roy, was the first woman Honours Graduate in India. She graduated from the prestigious Bethune College (Calcutta University) in 1886. She became a poet, a teacher in Bethune College, and was a feminist in her own right. She fought for women’s suffrage, and in 1926, Bengali women were allowed for the first time to exercise that right.

Her grandfather carried out selfless work during the Bengal famine of 1947- providing nutritious meals to the affected. Her aunt worked for the betterment of women of her village: she took into her home students from East Bengal in order to help them complete their education!

Shyamalee’s father had strong socialist views and spoke up against poverty and deprivation in the villages in Bengal. At home, he made sure that Shyamalee realized that the education she received was a privilege that it should to be used positively for the betterment of the world.

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Shyamalee, who has a Masters degree in History from Jadavpur University in Kolkata, has spent her entire career working for social justice and empowerment of the weaker sections of society. Initially, she worked for Marg-ORG, but her projects were related to women’s and children’s issues. She was assigned a UNICEF project on Child Survival and Safe Motherhood. Post that she worked on a project for Marie Stopes International.

When she joined the ICRC she was involved in qualitative research and trained as a disseminator in Geneva, Switzerland. Much later she set up the project office for UNIFEM in Goa: she was involved (along with the Tourism Dept. of Goa) in developing an ethical policy against the trafficking of women and children in the state.

The Goals of the Mitsuko Trust

The principal goal of the Trust is to make children aware of their place in the world, and their rights in society. The dignity and respect that comes with such awareness is expected to facilitate both their growth and sense of participation in society. And hopefully, their enjoyment too.

ECOSAN-Toilet

Most adults are not aware of the fact that the children too have legal rights. According to Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): “When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.”

According to Shyamalee, “We strive to create an enabling environment. We organize various activities for children to facilitate expression of their thoughts, ideas and creativity. These activities help children understand the true meaning of childhood:  every child has a right to be a child, and every child has the right to ask for his or her rights responsibly.”

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This is especially important in the case of underprivileged children. An understanding of their rights as a child enables them to display the full range of their aptitude and creativity. It empowers them to find creative ways of moving forward from the environment they are trapped in. It also helps them stand up to societal abuse and isolation.

Programs of the Trust

There are many programs that the Trust has flagged off over the years. The focus behind these programs has always been child participation. It is only through participation in plays, events, social causes and other extra-curricular activities that children can grasp the meaning of their rights and empowerment. They cannot be expected to report abuse and exploitation without knowing how to express them properly. They also would not know who would be able to redress their issues and circumstances.

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Here are a few of the programs that the Mitsuko Trust has facilitated. Incidentally, you can make a donation to any of these programs – the details are there on the website.

  • One of the children of Carambolim Village (in Old Goa), Diksha Naik, wrote a concept paper on the crisis confronting Carabolim Lake (a heritage site and a sanctuary for migratory birds) because of pollution, defecation, garbage disposal and unregulated construction. This was later formalised into a play called ‘Kuthe Gela Swacch Pani’ (Where has the clean water gone?): This play attracted international attention and was covered by The Atlantic and the Ignite Channel. As a result of all this attention the children of the Sunshine Worldwide School in Ribander, Goa, have adopted the lake and have taken the responsibility of keeping it clean. This is a child participation program working at its best!
  • The Trust works with the Bal Gram Sabha – launched in the two villages in Goa – where children can discuss their problems without interference from adults. One of the issues raised was the lack of toilets in Carabolim Village, which was a contributory factor to the pollution of the lake. This problem has been addressed by the construction of an ECOSAN toilet in the area. This environment friendly, dry toilet, conserves water, helps create compost for the adjoining fields, and even promotes tourism in the area. Many more ECOSAN toilets are required but finding the funding has always been difficult.
  • Alok Johri and Shreyaragi Israni have conducted art sessions for the children of Mango Tree Trust and Hamara School at the Mitsuko Centre.
  • Harshada Kerkar explored art through multimedia for the Children of the Creek – children living near the creek in Tamdi Mati, Goa.
  • Martial expert, Shera, provides self defence lessons to underprivileged children.


The challenges

When quizzed about the challenges facing the Trust, Shyamalee says, “Our cause is relatively new and difficult for people to understand. It is neither sensational nor tangible, so to speak. In a society where children are ‘told’ not ‘heard’, child rights are not taken seriously. Besides, showing results and demonstrating the effectiveness of programs takes years. Therefore, getting funds is a huge challenge.” Individual donors make up most of the contributions with some help coming in from a few agencies of the Goa government.

Other challenges confront the Trust on a daily basis. The public is apathetic, delays in getting approvals and permissions are vexing, the apprehensions of parents and caregivers are frustrating, and the lack of cooperation from other organisations and agencies is counterproductive. Of course, fundraising remains the number one challenge.

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In conclusion

Despite the innumerable roadblocks and frustrations along the way social service can be ultimately very rewarding. In Shyamalee’s words, “It is both fulfilling and revealing. It fills you with joy when you make a difference to people’s lives, especially children’s lives. However, it also shows you the conditions that exist in our country, and how far we have to go before we can create a better world for our children.”

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